23 maj 2013

Form over function?

EVERY TIME I SEE DAGENS NYHETER, I enjoy the paper’s new look which has been recognized in several design competitions and which earned Sweden’s leading morning daily a well-deserved place among the World’s Best-Designed Newspapers. Whether on print or tablet, DN appears to have found a form which matches its high-quality contents perfectly.

With one exception.
DN’s infographics are suffering from a severe case of circulitis.

I can understand how tempting it must have been to promote the DN punkt – the full stop sign which has distinguished Dagens Nyheter’s nameplate ever since the newspaper was founded in 1864 – to a key element of the new design. And in many instances, this works fine:

WHEN IT COMES TO CHARTS AND DIAGRAMS, however, DN’s fascination with the circular shape has taken them too far.
As a means for representing data, a circle has got limited potential. Divide the circle into components, like the slices of a pie, and we can roughly estimate how these different slices relate to each other (for that purpose, we use our experience from looking at a clock) … but when it comes to judging the actual size of a circle, most of us have to give up.

Try it yourself: How much bigger than circle A is circle B?
The problem is, we don’t know the ”rules”. Contrary to a bar chart, where the convention dictates that only one dimension matters – the height of a column, the length of a bar – no one has taught us how the size of a circle should translate into numbers. Do they want us to compare the area of circle A to circle B, or perhaps the diameter?
The difference is significant. The diameter of circle B is three times bigger than that of A; the area is nine times bigger!

A relation which becomes much easier to see if bars are used instead of circles:

When using circles to represent size, one will have to add the actual values to help readers get the message. And then, you might ask, what’s the point of making the graphic?

EXPERIMENTING AND LOOKING FOR NEW WAYS TO VISUALIZE DATA should be encouraged, and I guess it’s natural for fashion to change on the infographics scene as well as elsewhere. Currently, circles are en vogue. But using circles where a different shape – e g bars – would be appropriate is the equivalent of writing with distorted letters that nobody are able to read. Infographics is a kind of language, and you cannot replace one linguistic component with another just because you think the new one looks more interesting, or fits better into your design concept. Not if you wish to be understood.

Have a look at these graphics from recent issues of Dagens Nyheter and see how little information they convey to the reader. If an exact value had not been written in each circle, the graphics would have been impossible to decipher. And with the use of conventional bar or pie charts, all these examples would have delivered the message much more clearly and instantaneously:

FUNCTION IS BEING SACRIFICED on the altar of form. How strange to see this happen in a publication with such a rich infographic history and one of Scandinavia’s finest graphic departments. Moreover, the recent – otherwise very successful – redesign is in fact the brainchild of an infographic expert!
Rickard Frank started out as a graphic reporter at Svenska Dagbladet and has given infographics top priority at all the papers he has been able to influence through consulting or in various managing positions.
Therefore, I simply don’t understand why Rickard allows his own paper to consistently under-inform just for the sake of style.
Please, kill this darling! Now!

PS: In his wonderful book The Functional Art, Alberto Cairo dissects the phenomenon which he has named ”the bubble plague” (and even manages to come up with a few cases where it makes sense to use the so-called ”bubble chart”).

13 maj 2013

Great news from the global kiosk

THREE YEARS CAN BE A LONG TIME. On April 3, 2010, the Apple iPad was released – and wow, what a breathtaking development the app market has undergone since then. To a news junkie, a very fascinating aspect is that it has become so easy to go shopping in the ”global kiosk”. The App Store business model may not deserve recognition for its fairness but from a customer’s point of view, it’s a winner.
Try downloading a couple of issues of LaPresse+ (it is free) or the iPad version of Dagens Nyheter (price 19 DKK) – just to name a few examples – and enjoy the quality of these publications, design-wise as well as regarding content. To newspapers and magazines with more limited budgets, like those published in my own country which only five million people will ever be able to read, this is pretty harsh competition.

The new app from the weekly magazine New York caught my attention a couple of weeks ago and is certainly worth a look. Not least because it challenges a couple of tablet format guidelines which had already more or less become conventions.

NEW YORK was founded in 1968 by Milton Glaser and Clay Felker. It was conceived to be an unorthodox competitor to the well-established The New Yorker and soon became a cradle for new journalism. Over the years, such notable writers as Nora Ephron and Tom Wolfe have contributed to the magazine. A tablet edition has existed since October 2010 but this new app is a completely revamped version.

What impresses me most with the New York app is its bold and original approach to solving the dilemma between linear and non-linear publishing. Everybody knows that the contents of a digital publication can be updated every second, contrary to a printed publication which is by definition static and basically must have a linear narrative pattern. Consequently, in a digital environment, users may find it strange if nothing is happening for twenty-four hours (not to mention seven days).

On the other hand, if the contents are constantly changing, it can make you feel like you are never ”done”. Many readers appreciate volumes that have a beginning and an end. As Mario Garcia wrote recently in a comment to the new desktop app from The Economist: ”Readers want to read news editions that come to an end”.

So here we have a dilemma. And trying to combine the two types of publishing can lead to confusing results, as I described last year in my review of the first version of the Berlingske app.

THE NEW YORK SOLUTION is solomonic. The magazine has simply split the opening page in two and introduced a ”slider” which the user can draw up or down in order to switch between the magazine and an iPad-adapted version of the nymag.com news updates.
At first glance, this looks as strange as it sounds. However, as the entire app design is corresponding very elegantly to this ”two-face” architecture, it didn’t take me long to get used to the concept. In fact, I think it is pretty smart, rather than odd.

Another bold New York move is the decision to refrain from landscape mode. If you rotate your tablet 90 degrees, a small icon will appear on the screen which simply tells you to return to portrait mode.
Now wouldn’t it be great for all the magazine designers of the world if it might become standard procedure to make this basic choice – either it’s horizontal format, or vertical – instead of always having to offer users both options … with all the practical drawbacks, and very few actual benefits, this freedom-of-choice gives them?

THE FACT THAT NEW YORK CHOSE PORTRAIT MODE indicates that its editors must value words higher than visuals, because it cannot be denied that photography loses impact.
The overall visual appearance of this app is very concincing, though, with only one small minus for the body text which looks a little crabbed on my iPad 2. But perhaps it works better on a Retina display?

An ice blue colour marks everything that has to do with navigation and multimedia (mainly audio), meaning that users will quickly learn how to work the new app and enjoy its contents – which are impressive, in quantity as well as quality. To those who plan to visit the Big Apple, this is a must-read. And to the rest of us, it is definitely worth a look.

03 maj 2013

A drawing style is like a tone of voice


Just one of many users’ comments from Huffington Post to the current debate on a controversial magazine cover illustration. To be fair, THE WEEK run a caricature on almost every single front page they publish; therefore, frequent readers of the magazine must be used to this drawing style and might not see this particular front page as being quite as offensive as some other people – including this blogger – do.

Anyway, what intrigues me is not so much the discussion on potential racism and the fact that the artist depicted the Tsarnaev brothers less ”white” than they actually are. Although this is indeed interesting, and probably says a lot about the American society. Two rather good-looking young men (one slightly handsomer than the other) have been portrayed as jowly, gloomy-faced frights. And the one thing upsetting us is that their skin was made a tad darker than it actually is.

BUT THERE’S ANOTHER PROBLEM. And that is the impression people – a majority of Huffington Post users, at least (or, rather, a majority of those who commented on the story) – seem to have of illustrations. They appear to think that if it’s a drawing, anything goes. If you are an artist, you can do whatever you please.
Now of course cartoonists should enjoy great freedom. They must have the liberty to portray Dimitri Medvedev as a puppet – and even Angela Merkel as a nazi officer (although I personally find that analogy inappropriate) – in order to criticize not so much the appearances of these men and women, as their actions.

But what some people may not realize is how much is communicated through the drawing style.
A drawing style is like a ”tone of voice” with which an artist can add nuances to a visual statement and imply how that statement should be interpreted.

The more grotesque a picture looks, the more obvious it will be to the viewer that its statement should not be taken literally.
And once we realize that it is not to be taken literally, we’ll start looking for more layers, searching for an underlying message of the illustration. A subtler message, often kind of symbolic, often using metaphors.

AS I SEE IT, the main problem with the cover illustration of the Tsarnaev brothers is that there are no hidden layers to be found. This drawing does not ask to be scrutinized, it contains nothing more than what you see at first glance.
And its message is plain and simple: ”Here’s what these two guys look like, see what kind of monsters they are”.
This drawing is pure propaganda. It wants to manipulate us into seeing two Chechen immigrants as the essence of evil.

In a way, that is kind of strange, as the headline – and the subhead in particular – suggests a depth and a willingness to try digging down into the true substance of the story which could have been accompanied much more convincingly by a different kind of images. Pictures implying that these two men may be human after all, not just monsters, in spite of their horrible deed.

I have not read the article. But I suspect that the choice of illustration might be due to poor judgment and lack of skill rather than bad intentions.
But that is another story.

Thanks to Hari Stephen Kumar for composing the above picture package.